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Source:Capitol Weekly

Sound and fury from Republican right wing as governor's poll numbers rise

By Anthony York, January 26, 2006

For years, California political reporters have written stories around the state Republican Party convention centered on one basic theme, the party's impressive ability to consistently consume their young. Whether it's burning Pete Wilson in effigy, as activists did outside the 1991 state party convention, or forcing showdowns on divisive social issues, conservative activists have controlled the party leadership and dominated pre- and post-convention headlines for as long as most Californians can remember.

So it comes as no surprise that as the party is set to gather in San Jose next month, the same group of conservatives is making noise again. In a meeting in Palm Springs earlier this month, a group of activists vowed to force a floor fight over the governor's chief of staff, Susan Kennedy. They are preparing to push a resolution calling on the governor to fire Kennedy or risk losing the party's endorsement. The feud could have a financial impact, too, on the governor's and party's ability to raise campaign cash.

Is this really the "burgeoning insurgency" that the Washington Times reported this week, or a desperate attempt to remain relevant and retain influence in a state party that decreasingly reflects conservative ideals?

"It depends how you define influence," says GOP strategist Dan Schnur, who as an aide to Wilson in 1991 saw the conservatives' wrath first hand. "The success of any political party is its success to reach beyond its base. But that party's strength does come from its base."

The more the conservatives voice their displeasure, it seems, the more Schwarzenegger's political recovery is under way. A new Public Policy Institute of California poll shows that his approval ratings among likely voters has jumped seven points since October. According to the poll, 45 percent of likely voters approve of the job the governor is doing, while 48 percent disapprove. (Those numbers were 38-57 in October.)

But even within the confines of the party, there are signs the clout of conservatives is waning.

While conservatives used to control the party apparatus, moderates are now at the helm. Duf Sundheim, who is considered a moderate, was recently reelected to a second two-year term as party chairman. The only other statewide Republican official other than Schwarzenegger is Bruce McPherson, a pro-choice moderate.

When Gov. Schwarzenegger embraced a traditional Republican agenda in 2005, he was rebuked at the polls. Now, the party standard bearer is visibly moving to the left on key issues like the minimum wage, and has proposed an ambitious $68 billion bond program that has rankled some fiscal conservatives. He is pro-choice, and supportive of gay rights (though not gay marriage).

GOP activist Steve Frank says he is dismayed at the direction both the governor, and the party, are headed. "The Republican Party has to face a decision," he says. "Do we want power or do we want principals?"

Meanwhile, conservative activists have suffered some setbacks. Two recent ballot initiatives pushed by conservative factions of the party failed to qualify for the ballot. One measure promoted by Assemblyman Ray Haynes would have created a new state border patrol. Another would have repealed California's domestic partnership law.

But the governor has tried to reach out to skeptical conservatives. While he has continued to stand by his chief of staff, he has tended to the care and feeding of party activists. Soon after the Kennedy appointment was made, the governor made a personal call to activist and blogger Jon Fleischman and met with party leaders to reassure them that Kennedy would be a loyal chief of staff.

More importantly, say Republican officials, the governor has taken early action to explain his ambitious policy proposals. The governor has been touring the state explaining his massive, $68 billion infrastructure plan. And the administration has started to send surrogates to local Republican activists to help explain, and address concerns about his plan.

Administration sources say an effort to court local activists will begin next week with the governor himself, as well as surrogates, courting GOP volunteers and local leaders. Last week, Cabinet Secretary Fred Aguiar met with the Los Angeles County Republican Party to help explain the governor's bond package. "A lot of people listened," said one party official. "Some didn't necessarily agree, but I think those things are helpful."

Schnur says Republicans have every right to question the governor's policy choices, but that too much has been made of the Kennedy hire. In a post on Fleischman's blog this weekend, Schnur jokingly suggested Schwarzenegger divorce his Democratic wife, Maria Shriver, and replace her with Jenna Bush. The point, says Schnur, is that the governor should ultimately be judged on policy, not personnel.

"If Schwarzenegger has adopted a new governing agenda, it's entirely reasonable for conservatives to question that approach. But I haven't yet heard a good explanation of where they go with it. If Schwarzenegger doesn't fire Susan Kennedy, what next? Do you run a primary candidate? Stay home in November?"

Frank downplays the likelihood of a primary challenge from the right, but says the governor needs to do something to energize his base. That may be tough, since a large minority--perhaps as much as 40 percent--didn't even vote for Schwarzenegger during the recall.

"You're heading into November in a base that's not energized,' he said. "Why should we give our time to somebody who doesn't share our beliefs?"

One answer may be that Schwarzenegger and the activists need each other.

With Proposition 34 fundraising limits in effect for the first time in a gubernatorial campaign, Schwarzenegger needs to maintain the party's endorsement to continue funneling money for his reelection effort through the state party.

In a story in Sunday's Sacramento Bee, Schwarzenegger's chief fundraiser, Marty Wilson, said "the party is going to be very important to us in terms of helping to fund the campaign."

Schwarzenegger, in turn, represents by far the party's best fundraiser. Sources say since Schwarzenegger was elected, the state party's fundraising has soared even as national GOP fundraising has faltered.


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